Time magazine created a stir with its recent cover story entitled "Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public School."
Time's seemingly unusual stance received a great deal of attention — and some significant applause from conservative Christians.
This controversial proposal is not a wise one, however.
Time's senior religion writer David Van Biema asserts that the Bible so pervades Western culture that it is hard to consider anyone educated who doesn't have at least a passing familiarity with its key passages. And as for the church-state issue, he maintains that teaching the Bible in schools as an object of study rather than God's received word is constitutional.
On the face of it, all of this sounds good. But there are dangers lurking whenever government gets involved in religion. There is a growing tendency for religious groups to embrace government-sponsored religious activities. President Bush has embraced "faith-based initiatives."
Let's go back to the Bible in the classroom issue. Would you want public school teachers interpreting the Bible for your kids? In some schools teachers may promote the Bible because they are believing Christians. In other schools teachers with a secular humanist bent will undermine its legitimacy. The best place for faith to be taught to kids is in the home, church, and private schools.
In a similar vein, I would oppose many so-called faith-based initiatives, especially ones which link public funding with religious practice.
The White House office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was established by President Bush through an executive order in 2001. It seeks to strengthen faith-based and community organizations.
These faith-based organizations (FBOs) are thus allowed to compete for government contracts to deliver services regardless of their religious affiliation. In fiscal 2005, more than $2.1 billion in social service grants were awarded to faith-based entities.
Already, regulations were imposed on FBOs to make sure they would pass constitutional muster in the courts. As it happens, the Bush administration is taking a laissez faire approach to these faith-based groups and reportedly few federal agencies are actively monitoring FBOs as to their compliance with federal guidelines, according to a 2006 Government Accountability Office report. And a former director of the White House office, Jim Towey, admitted in 2004 that no direct federal grants from the program had gone to a non-Christian religious group. Would Christians like it when federal funds go to Islamic groups, or Jewish groups? I doubt Americans of Islamic and Jewish faiths are pleased federal funds are given to Christian groups.
While it is true many FBOs have done wonderful work with the funds they receive, there's the danger that religious organizations could become so dependent on federal funds that they lose their independence. Already Catholic-backed organizations have seen their government funding imperiled because their faith opposes abortion, contraception, and gay adoption.
One of the greatnesses of America has been our independent and separate religious establishment. In America's great democratic experiment, we chose a different course than most of Europe where faith has become largely an institution of the state. America has been far more stable than its European counterparts for over 200 years. One reason, I believe, is that religious groups in America act as check against the power of the state.
History readily teaches us the perils societies face when church and state become too intertwined. It was, to cite one example, the Church-sanctioned "divine right of kings" precept that legitimized hereditary aristocracy and led to the likes of Louis XV. The intolerant radical Islamic regimes of today are another example. As envisioned by the framers of the Constitution, the government should be unencumbered by concerns about religion. But likewise, religion should be free from the concerns of government.
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